Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Should Just Work

My father died of cancer in the Fall of 1996. Sometime around July that year he drove home in a new car; he went out to get a Cadillac but came home with a Buick. "It was $10,000 cheaper". He had always wanted the Caddy, but couldn't turn down the deal.

He was stick thin after 9 months of treatment, surgery, and more treatment; "drink the poison, it's kill or be killed,  the trick is to stop in time". I was there to tell him the doctors wanted to try another round, but he refused to continue treatments. He knew it was over.

When Steve Jobs presented his vision for the "spaceship" Apple campus to Cupertino City Council, his breathing was labored, his body skeletal. He knew it was over, and anyone who's witnessed the slow but definitive decline of someone dying from cancer could see that.

But there he was, pushing his final (public) vision, visionary to the end.

Positive Discrimnation
I didn't know Jobs; the closest I ever came was through an unflattering comparison to him because he saw people in black and white--"heroes and assholes"--as one of his Next employees (a board member of my second company) described while explaining the importance of gray areas to me (and then proceeded to give an amateur diagnosis of the real issues behind my discontent with a non-performing CEO. Classic VC stuff).

I've never been a fan of the gray areas and don't think they should be celebrated, though personalizing those characterizations isn't particularly productive.

What is productive, however, is that razor-sharp quickness of judgment, that ability to know what works and what doesn't. Like the investor in yesterday's post, Jobs was 'sometimes wrong but never in doubt'.

That kind of discrimination produced a line of products that enabled the world to do great things better, faster, more creatively, and with greater reach than ever before.

Rarely First, Usually Better
He wasn't first with most things. The PC was envisioned in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart, and introduced commercially by Micral in 1972. Jobs & Wozniak introduced the Apple I in 1976. It was much better.


The iPod was not the first MP3 player; it was best. Audio Highway was the first.

The iPhone was not the first smartphone by any measure; HandSpring had a cell-plugin, but IBM introduced the first fully integrated phone + PDA, or smartphone in 1992. Jobs, however, nailed it.


It Should Just Work
Jobs believed it should just work, it should be great;  he embraced being the best as the target, not just incrementally better.

In some ways, Jobs and the recent Apple are a perfect example of American exceptionalism. He seemed to believe that poor design was an injustice to fight against and ridicule. The people who chose bad but affordable design deserved what they got: a cheap bundle of struggle.

Inspired by that ethic, I came up with the GiftWorks tagline: "software anyone can use, and everyone can afford." The driving ethic was that it should just work, it should be obvious and simple so that anyone could use it without reaching for a manual or training. We never quite got there, but we were better than the others for a long time.

That was a borrowed ethic, without his brilliance to know the difference between was just worked and what sucked--in a lot of cases.

Educate the Blockers
Jobs likely left writing, designs, ideas behind. I'm hoping there will be an interactive museum, a place where the middle managers of the world can go to learn about innovators and visionaries and how to work with and enable them.

That might seem like an odd suggestion; yes I'd hope for a place all of us can visit and be delighted in what we learn and experience, but perhaps the celebration of Jobs' life can serve to educate the blockers to become enablers and catalyzers, so more visionaries can thrive and change lives for the good in the process.

The tendency to obstruct or crush that which is different or challenging impedes human progress, but it seems like the default human reaction to change, new ideas and those who carry them.

Apple was at its best when its prime driver was untethered by the machinations of corporate structure and biases: at its beginning, and when he returned after his dismal departure and Apple's dismal years in between.

He was a true founder, with his brilliance and faults and challenges, and he carried the torch without apologizing for it, leaving us with the leading but important question: what is the lesson of Steve Jobs life?

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